Hot job: Ophthalmic assistant

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- At Southwestern Eye Center, before patients see their eye doctor, they are likely to see another health care expert -- an ophthalmic assistant.

Optometrist Dr. Arlynn Roper told 3TV those assistants help with basic eye tests, patient assistance and other tasks throughout the clinic, putting the job in high demand.

"Everybody needs a doctor, and doctors always need technicians, so I think there is always going to be quite a demand for this type of work," Roper said.

That's exactly why Maricopa Skill Center has added a certified ophthalmic assistant program.

"We are the only program in the whole state of Arizona," program director Pat Lamb explained, adding that next closest program is in Colorado.

It was just what Dana Burns was looking for in a new career.

"I needed a change and this was best suited for the time frame," she said.

Burns wanted to stay in the medical field but did not have the money or time to head back to school to pursue a degree that could take years.

"Having young children, six months seemed like the ideal time frame for me," she said.

And a key to success for these students is the hands-on experience, Lamb said.

"When they leave here, they know how to do a comprehensive eye exam, they know how to treat a patient, they know medical and ocular diseases," Burns added.

"Most of it is all hands-on. We are learning new things every day and just practice and practice, and it is really interesting," she said.

And there is another plus for job seekers: This degree opens up a world of possibilities.

"You could work with an ocular plastic surgeon," Lamb said. "You can actually work with children, pediatric ophthalmology. You can go work in an OR; you can scrub for surgery."

Roper sees it all the time.

"Some of these technicians learn on a basic level, but they are so excited they will move up, and then they move to another office, be a retina tech, a photographer, maybe move into the surgery side of things," Roper said.

And Burns says for her, there was a final secret to finding a job she loves: having the vision to see herself succeed.

"It was very easy," she said. "You don't have all those prerequisites to have to get through and you are here for six hours a day, and you just absorb everything. It's just very easy."

Doctors call the school looking for employees, even before some students graduate. After they finish the program, they need put in an additional 500 hours of work before they can sit for their Certified Ophthalmic Assistant exam.

The average starting wage is about $30,000 a year.